Since the age of six, I’ve known how to get “out of my head.” As one of the last Unangan (Aleut) to experience a true traditional upbringing, I was allowed to walk the six miles from the village out to the bird cliffs, even as a very young child. There, I could be in the midst of the tens of thousands of migratory seabirds that came to the island to breed: Thick-billed and Common Murres, Red and Black-legged Kittiwakes, Tufted and Horned Puffins, Least Auklets, Crested Auklets, Pelagic Cormorants, Red-faced Cormorants, Fulmars, and Seagulls.
I noticed how thousands of birds darted diagonally, up and down, left to right and right to left, flying at different speeds and in different directions simultaneously without ever even clipping another’s wing. In my six-year-old mind, I decided that the only difference between those birds and myself was that they drew upon a vast field of awareness rather than an intellectual thought process (although I did not use such words at the time). I wanted to be like a bird, so, after months of effort, I developed the capacity to maintain this state of “awareness without thinking” for several hours at a time. That was when the magic happened: I could sense many things I’d never experienced before, and my world expanded enormously.
From then on, I understood how Unangan people received their spiritual instructions for living, principles that had helped them sustain their communities for thousands of years: reciprocity with all living things, humility, respect for all life, honoring Elder wisdom, giving without expectation of a return to self, thinking of others first, and many more.
Such spiritual principles for living did not come from logic or thought but from a much deeper source of wisdom, which our Unangan culture referred to as the “heart.” When Unangan Elders speak of the “heart,” they do not mean mere feelings, even positive and compassionate ones. “Heart” refers to a deeper portal of profound interconnectedness and awareness that exists between humans and all living things. Centering oneself there results in humble, wise, connected ways of being and acting in the world. Indigenous peoples have cultivated access to this source as part of a deep experience and awareness of the profound interdependency between the natural and human worlds. To access it, you must drop out of the relentless thinking that typically occupies the Western mind.
When accessed, this portal provides the inner wisdom that keeps us in right relationship with all of life, thus ensuring our long-term survival and well-being, individually and collectively. Our fallible thought processes regularly deceive us. Yet, when guidance or information comes from the heart, it can be relied upon and has impeccable integrity.
Today, and for too long, humans have been trying to deal with daunting issues with the mind alone. The heart allows us to focus on making our dreams of peace and harmony a reality; the mind keeps us focused on the problems. Indigenous Elders ask the question: “What are you choosing to focus on? Are you choosing to focus on that which you are trying to move away from or that which you are trying to move toward?” Because, they say, what we choose to focus on becomes our primary reality. If we choose to become emotionally attached to that which we are trying to move away from—for example, if we become attached on an emotional and intellectual level to “winning the fight” against pollution and climate change—we may unintentionally perpetuate the violence we are committed to transforming.
From the perspective of the Elders, violence involves any actions, thoughts, feelings, or words that consciously or unconsciously set one person against another, regardless of how well intentioned we are. There may be short-term gains, but no real long-term solutions. The alternative to violence requires that we take the same bold actions to protect that which we depend upon and love from a place of positive vision, intention, and compassion. The Indigenous Elders say that nothing is created outside of ourselves until it is first created within ourselves.
The Indigenous Elders also say we have reversed the laws for living. In the past, we used to contemplate the mysteries of death; now we contemplate the mysteries of life, probing ever more deeply into life’s mysteries with our technologies and research. The Elders know that even more important than a scientific understanding of how the world works is a spiritual understanding of human limits and our proper place within the web of creation. They say we need to contemplate the mysteries of death in order to fully live in the Now with humility and respect for all living things. They say that we once honored feminine energies and capacities in the world (exhibited by both men and women and by Mother Earth herself); now we almost exclusively honor the masculine. We used to respect the Elders; now we excessively venerate youth. We traditionally prioritized process; yet, today we fixate on goals and outcomes. (From an Indigenous perspective, proper process always produces results that exceed individual expectations.) In the past, we focused on wisdom and knowledge and never separated the two; now we focus on knowledge alone. The Elders know that knowledge without the wisdom to apply it correctly is useless, if not dangerous. We used to experience the depth and richness of silence in our lives; now there is noise everywhere. And the most dire reversal is that now the mind tells the heart what to do instead of the mind following the heart.
Still, when you access this heart center, you must have great courage to follow what it is telling you. Sometimes that feels like jumping from a cliff. But when you do, you will never regret it. Once you have accessed the heart, you enter into the vast field of awareness in the company of birds and connect in a deep and profound way with all living things.
“Breeding Murres on St. Paul Island in the 1970’s” courtesy of Ilarion Merculieff.